The original, Broadway production of “Dear Evan Hansen” launched Ben Platt toward major stardom, landing him a best actor in a musical Tony Award. And Platt was spectacular in the title role.
But there’s so much more to “Dear Evan Hansen” than the first man to play the title role — a shy, awkward, damaged teenager who serves as an everyman for, well, most of us. Stephen Christopher Anthony is nothing short of spectacular himself in the Broadway Across America production currently playing at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City.
There’s a reason it won six Tonys in 2017 — including best musical. And the production at the Eccles is superior. The cast is all Broadway quality. You’re not paying to see a lesser version of “Dear Evan Hansen.”
The heartfelt, heart-tugging show — written by Steven Levenson, with music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — centers on Evan, a high schooler who just doesn’t fit and doesn’t have any friends. His therapist suggests he write himself positive notes, and one of his “Dear Evan Hansen” letters is taken from him by a deeply troubled classmate, Connor Murphy (Noah Kieserman). When Connor dies by suicide shortly thereafter, his parents (John Hemphill and Claire Rankin) find the letter, which they believe their son wrote to Evan.
Awkward Evan tries to tell the truth, but ends up fabricating a tale of his true friendship with Connor to soothe the suffering of the dead teen’s parents. And there’s the additional complication that Evan has a crush on Connor’s sister, Zoe (Stephanie La Rochelle). The lies spin out of control when Evan’s tribute to his late “friend” and statement that “No one deserves to be forgotten” goes viral online.
Not that the show is one big downer. It’s laugh-out-loud funny as Evan tries to overcome his shyness with Zoe. His interactions with his one real, sort-of friend, Jared Kleinman (Alessandro Constantini), are hilarious, highlighted by the song “Sincerely, Me.”
“Dear Evan Hansen” could succeed as a drama, without the music. But the songs are unforgettable — “Waving Through a Window,” “For Forever,” “Requiem,” “If I Could Tell Her,” “Disappear,” “Words Fail,” and the first-act finale, “You Will Be Found.” You won’t know which one to hum on your way out of the theater.
Pasek and Paul won both a best score Tony for “Dear Evan Hansen” and a best song Oscar for “La Land Land” (“City of Stars”) in 2017; they added a best song Golden Globe for “The Greatest Showman” (“This Is Me”) in 2018.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is a remarkably emotional experience — bring tissues — because it’s all but impossible not to identify with what’s happening onstage. Who hasn’t felt alone at some point? Who hasn’t felt invisible? Who hasn’t felt disconnected from family? Who hasn’t felt the pressure to live up to parents’ expectations?
But this is not just a show about angsty teens. Evan’s mother, Heidi (Jessica E. Sherman), takes center stage as a single parent who’s deeply concerned about her son and unsure how to help him. What parent can’t identify with that?
Sherman performs the second act showstopper, “So Big/So Small,” pouring her heart into telling Evan of her heartbreak for him when his father left for good.
On the way home, I told my adult daughter that I was thinking of her as the show reached that climax. I wondered how she and her siblings, like Evan, made it through being essentially abandoned by one parent and raised by the other, who often had no idea what he (me) was doing.
As if “Dear Evan Hansen” wasn’t already enough of an emotional experience …
If only everyone in Utah audiences knew how to behave at the theater. The phone that went off — loudly — during the show’s emotional climax was beyond annoying, instantly taking everyone within earshot out of the narrative.
That, and the other two phones that went off during the performance, were the only unprofessional aspects of the evening. “Dear Evan Hansen” is an astonishingly deep show, and the touring company brought all that depth to its performances at the Eccles.
“Dear Evan Hansen” continues at the Eccles Theater through March 14. All performances are sold out, but there’s a daily lottery for a chance to buy $25 tickets.